Eli leads down a path hidden along the side of the Scar. We follow down into the trench. Most of the caves here don’t have hatches; the metal was stripped and reused elsewhere. The black holes yawn at us. Kaynie stays by my side, her hands wrapped around my arm. Thankfully it’s the arm that didn’t get chewed on by a dog.
I don’t have plague. I don’t. I can’t.
I wonder of Tannen is back from the pyre yet. He knew I’d been bitten. Well, I’d yelled at him, anyway. I wonder if he even remembers? Stupid mentor always cared more about the dead than the living. Sure, honor the dead, but that doesn’t help us at all.
I stumble as my foot hits the uneven ground. The trail isn’t worn smooth like a scaffoldwalk. Kaynie grips my arm hard enough I can feel it through the layers of coats. I glance over at her. The snow in her hair glistens.
No. She’s not pretty. Tala is pretty and scrappy and all that. I don’t know anything about Kaynie. She isn’t pretty.
I look at her longer than I probably should. “What?” she asks.
“Nothing.” I look at Eli’s back again. I think I hear a deep rumble of a laugh, but that might just be the distant ‘shovels working to find more heat springs.
Eli turns on a slim switchback. I offer my hand – my good hand – to help Kaynie navigate it. She unwraps her hands from my arm. “I’ve been in the mines with my dad enough times,” she says. “I don’t need your help.”
She was just clinging to me. Before that she was hitting me. What’s wrong with this girl? She makes no sense.
I take my hand back and keep close to Eli. The snow’s starting to come down thicker again, and we might lose him. I should be able to find my way back to the sanctuary, but I’d rather not risk it.
I hear Kaynie scramble on the rocks, and then she’s at my side again, her hands around my arm.
I hope I don’t give her the plague.
Shut up. I don’t have plague.
A howl pierces the night. It’s lonely, desolate, hungry. And it’s nearby. I look over the edge of the path and deep down into the trench, into the darkness.
“Dogs and other animals fall into the Scar every once in a while,” Eli’s deep voice rumbles. “We won’t go that deep.”
I pull my bad hand up into my coat sleeve. I feel warmth come into my cheeks and linger on a recent cut.
Kaynie pulls closer. “Can they climb out?”
“Sometimes they find a path up,” Eli answers. “Come on. We don’t want to stay out here.” He turns and crunches away into the snow again.
Again, into the snowy darkness we plunge. Kaynie whispers, “What happened between you two?”
I think. “He runs a group that… the officers don’t like very much. So they keep to themselves. They take most people in. He didn’t like me and kicked me out.”
“Tell the whole story if you’re going to tell it, Aydrik,” Eli’s voice floats from the darkness in front of us.
“You’ll be safe here until you decide to go home.” I breathe deeply before asking, “What about you?”
“You heard. My dad died.”
“Yeah, but you chose to come with a stupid pyreman when you were in danger.” A stupid pyreman who probably isn’t a pyreman anymore because he abandoned his mentor, I choose not to add.
“Dad always warned me about who to trust. You risked your life for me. I knew you were safe, at least for a little bit. And I don’t know who wants me dead now that dad’s…” She swallows. “Is someone else going to take care of him?”
I nod. “Probably. Cedric, the guy you talked to when you came to our cave – he’ll probably go and try to take care of things.”
“Probably. That’s not very comforting.”
“Why’d you take me here instead of back to the pyremen? You always protect your own, don’t you?”
I don’t answer.
“You got kicked out there, too, didn’t you?”
I look at her sideways. “Not yet.”
What does that mean? “Well”?
We’ve descended a long ways through all the switchbacks. Kaynie never takes my hand – course, I stop offering it after that first time. Now, even in the darkness, I can make out the floor of the Scar. Snow falls on top of a frozen river – the heat springs that used to be here. The heat’s all dried up, leaving just the water. It looks amazing, a dark blue in the darkness, worn smooth by the snow. It looks like someone took the snowdunes of the plains and froze them so they stopped moving. I used to come out here when I was younger and pretend they were still water, and I could walk over them. I’d hold out my hand and pretend He was guiding me over the waves.
I was stupid then.
A shadow moves over the frozen waves. Another.
They’re only a few paces below us. “Are you sure we’re safe?” I ask.
Eli turns and smiles. “Just don’t slip.”
The dogs hear us. They follow along on the solid river, their claws scratching against the ice, panting as they watch us. Their eyes shine in the darkness.
My wrist aches.
The cut on my face burns.
Kaynie squeezes my arm.
Eli turns toward the entrance of a cave. It’s more of a crag, really, a dark cut in the side of the trench. Layers of snow and ice hem it in. He calls into it, “I have two guests. They claim sanctuary.”
A question echoes out of the cave, a question cast by an old female voice, “Does the fish swim?”
“Only in clear water,” Eli answers.
Kaynie shoots me a look, but I roll my eyes. Fish. Like those even exist anymore. Then again, this group loves talking about Before. Before the snows fell eternal from the sky. Before we were forced to dig down to heat. Before, when there were so many more people and it was warm even above the ground. And they like talking about Later, too, when it’ll be warm again. Someday.
But they’re not very helpful Now.
Eli gestures into the crag.
I glance at Kaynie before moving forward. We’ll only fit in one at a time. I slide between the walls of ice and into the darkness beyond. My cheek is really burning now. I lean forward to let my head rest against the ice for a moment.
I almost groan; the cool feels so good.
That’s probably a bad sign.
No. I don’t have the plague. It’s just a cut, that’s all.
The crag widens and I step into an echoing tunnel. The woman’s voice addresses me, “Aydrik. It’s been a long time. We’ve missed you.”
“Welcome home.” Arms come out of the darkness and embrace me. Rough cloth brushes against my face.
I ball my fists.
It’s not home. I don’t have a home. Every place kicks me out.
Why’d I bring Kaynie here anyway?
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